New Clause 8

Charities Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 13 July 2006.

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The Charity Independent Complaints Reviewer

‘After section 2D of the 1993 Act (inserted by section 8 of this Act) insert—

“Part 1B

THE CHARITY INDEPENDENT COMPLAINTS REVIEWER

2E The Charity Independent Complaints Reviewer

(1) There shall be a complaints reviewer to be known as the Charity Independent Complaints Reviewer (in this Act referred to as “the Reviewer”).

(2) The function of the Reviewer will be to investigate complaints against the Charity Commission’s performance of its regulatory role and, where appropriate, make financial awards of compensation against the Charity Commission, whether limited consolatory payments or unlimited payments for financial loss, and make recommendations.

(3) Except where the Reviewer finds the complainant has acted frivolously, vexatiously or unreasonably, the complainant shall not be required to pay any part of the costs of the investigation.

(4) No complainant shall be required to use any internal complaints procedure of the Charity Commission, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, the Charity Tribunal or the courts before the Reviewer will consider the case, and any consideration by the Reviewer will not prevent the case subsequently being considered by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration or the courts.

(5) The Reviewer shall be appointed by the Lord Chancellor on such other terms as he, after consultation, shall think fit.”’.—[Martin Horwood.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I am grateful for that reminder, Mr. Gale, and I shall do my best to comply with it. The new clause is designed to place on a statutory basis the institution of the independent complaints reviewer. The office already exists, but the new clause would facilitate significant alterations to the current arrangements. There is an accusation that the independent complaints reviewer is, to an extent, the creature of the commission. If it is to continue to exist and to be useful even after the Bill creates the charity tribunal—we also have the alternative of the ombudsman route—some changes to the status of the independent reviewer could be instituted, and the new clause is designed to effect those.

In many respects, the new clause is self-explanatory. In opposing a similar suggestion in another place, the Minister, Lord Bassam of Brighton, suggested that the ombudsman route was advantageous. However, in practice that is not really available to many charities. As I said, in many respects the new clause speaks for itself and I will not detain the Committee any longer in proposing it, but I would be interested to hear hon. Members’ views on it.

Photo of Ed Miliband Ed Miliband Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office)

The problem with the new clause is that it would give powers to the independent complaints reviewer that already exist for the parliamentary ombudsman. The danger is that it would confuse the parliamentary ombudsman’s situation. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the 2004-05 report by Jodi Berg, the independent complaints reviewer, who says on page 3:

“In particular, an argument has been made for a new statutory office of Independent Complaints Reviewer, changing the basis of appointment and affording the office holder the power to award substantive compensation to those adversely affected by the Commission’s actions or omissions.

My personal view is that some caution needs to be exercised in relation to this proposal. There is already a statutory avenue for complaints about the Charity Commission, that being the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, who is able to award redress for financial loss where she deems it necessary to do so. It is doubtful whether a potentially overlapping office would add anything for the citizen other than confusion. My own role, in common with other similar offices, is based on agreed terms of reference which underline my independence and authority.”

I tend to agree with the ICR.

There is a response open to the hon. Member for Cheltenham. He could ask, “How much power does the parliamentary ombudsman have, and will Government accept her recommendations?” I point out that the Charity Commission has always accepted the parliamentary ombudsman’s recommendations, which is an important record. I cannot speak for the commission, but I think that it is good that it has done so. I do not think that the new clause is advisable, and I hope that he will withdraw it.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister for his comments. He needs to understand why the parliamentary ombudsman route is not available in practice for many charities. The independent complaints reviewer is not empowered even to recommend that the commission pay compensation  where a charity has suffered loss as a result of its practices. It also routinely refuses to take up cases where there is a legal possibility of pursuing the commission for compensation through the courts. In practice, that route is potentially ruinously expensive for charities and therefore not a realistic option, but it effectively bars them from going to the ombudsman.

The proof of the pudding is in what has happenedin the past decade. Since the introduction of the Charities Act 1993, the parliamentary ombudsmanhas investigated only eight complaints about the commission’s conduct, upholding three and recommending financial compensation in two cases. There are clear grounds for the new clause and the financial compensation powers that I am proposing. I hope that if I withdraw it, the Minister will reflect on the role of the independent complaints review and the possibility of strengthening its powers, making access easier and introducing powers of financial compensation.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.